Facebook Is Evil

April 6, 2010 in Business, Essays

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a fan of Google. This isn’t a post to describe my personal affection for a corporate entity, but it is an attempt to describe one element that I find particularly appealing.

Don’t Be Evil

This phrase is Google’s infamous, informal corporate motto. I love it. Not only does it help reinforce my romantic, naive teenage dreams that I could become the next Richard Branson or Bill Gates just by doing good in the world, but it also helps prove that in the new business world, evil is bad for business.

A small bit of history on the origins of the motto: At the start of the last decade, in the company’s early days, they had reached a pivotal point in their growth. Google was starting to expand beyond a small team of like-minded individuals and so the founders felt there was need to somehow define the company’s core values. Equipped with the new set of values any potential new-comer, when faced with a decision in their job, could instinctively know what “Google would do”.

John Battelle’s book on Google, The Search, tells the story like this:

On July 19, 2001, about a dozen early employees met to mull over the founders’ directive [to elucidate Google’s core values] … The meeting soon became cluttered with the kind of easy and safe corporate clich├ęs that everyone can support, but that carry little impact: Treat Everyone with Respect, for example, or Be on Time for Meetings.

The engineers in the room were rolling their eyes. [Amit] Patel recalls: “Some of us were very anticorporate, and we didn’t like the idea of all these specific rules.”

That’s when Paul Buchheit, another engineer in the group, blurted out what would become the most important three words in Google’s corporate history. “Paul said, ‘All of these things can be covered by just saying, Don’t Be Evil,'” Patel recalls. “And it just kind of stuck.”

The message spread, and it was embraced, especially by Page and Brin… “I think it’s much better than Be Good or something,” Page jokes. “When you are making decisions, it causes you to think. I think that’s good.”

And that’s what “Don’t be evil” came to mean within the company. It was their way of reminding every member of staff that the user comes first. It informs their design, marketing, advertising and strategic decisions. Yahoo used to sell the top spot in it’s search results as paid placements, but Google decided confusing it’s users into clicking ads was “evil” and so it kept it’s search results separated from it’s sponsored links. Almost anything that taxed or exploited or inconvenienced a user was considered evil and avoided, even if it meant losing revenue in the short term. Even though this was borne out of a sense of moral obligation, it has since become an incredibly powerful driver of business success.

Facebook Is Unstoppable

I don’t know how many news articles and blog posts I’ve read that proclaim Facebook’s current position to be unbeatable, but I do know that I agreed with most of them. There were many reasons that Facebook overtook and usurped the user bases of MySpace, Bebo, Orkut, Hi5 and all the rest, but today these reasons are somewhat unimportant. Facebook has emerged as the victor from the early social networking free-for-all, and with it’s massive userbase (400 million and counting), open APIs and top class design, there really is no need for a competitor. When it comes to main-stream social networks, where the user’s utility and enjoyment comes from the fact all their friends are on the same network, the world only really needs one.

For this reason alone, I found it very difficult to imagine what features a new would-be contender to the throne might have, or how anybody could hope to gain a network effect stronger than Facebook’s own. But last week I read two separate articles that stopped me wondering how Facebook might eventually be toppled. “This is it for Facebook,” I thought. ” This is the beginning of the end.” (dun dun dun!)

The Love Of Money…

If I could alter this bible quote above, I would change it to “earning no money is the root of all evil.” Facebook has over 400 million users, but has only recently been cash flow positive. While they might be on track to earn $1 billion this year, the length of time it has taken for investors to start getting a return has got to be a huge weight on Mark Zuckerberg’s shoulders.

So let’s imagine we are Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook. (This scenario will probably be applicable to Twitter pretty soon too). Since founding Facebook in 2004, people have given you over $700m of their own money and are counting on you to earn them a large return on that investment. So how does your business make money? In 2009 you probably earned between $600m-$700m, and almost all of that came from advertising. Like the TV, Radio and Newspapers before you, you’re in the business of selling a captive audience to marketers. So what do you do to make more money in 2010?

This is the key cross roads that all companies reach if they are in the business of selling an audience to advertisers. If they mistreat their audience to earn extra revenue in the short term, their business suffers in the long term. This is why newspapers separate their sales teams from the editorial teams and this is why Google doesn’t like to be evil.

Facebook, it would seem, has bowed to the pressure. Here are the two headlines from last week that I mentioned:

Facebook Is Evil

Both of these moves are very evil, in the Google sense of the word.

The first article describes Facebook’s potential plan to take the benefits of Facebook connect, but to remove the pesky “user’s permission” element – “Imagine visiting a website and finding that it already knows who you are, where you live, how old you are and who your Facebook friends are, without your ever having given it permission to access that information,” wrote Marshal Kirkpatrick. Facebook, on the other hand, described it as a nice user experience and a way of making Facebook connect “more seamless” – how thoughtful of them!

The second article describes a new change in the language used on Facebook advertisements. Users can currently “like” an update on Facebook, just to express the fact that they enjoyed it, or they can “become a fan” of a brand or company to connect with them and receive regular updates from them. Facebook has realised that users are far more likely to “like” something than “become a fan” (presumably because there is no commitment in the first one) and so they decided to change the language on their advertisements. Now a user will be presented with an option to “like” an advertisement, but it will have the functionality of “becoming a fan.” In essence, Facebook are tricking their users into opting into communications from advertisers. Or as they like to put it “This lighter-weight action for connection to a Page on Facebook means that users will be making more connections across the site, including your Facebook Page.”

Good Vs. Evil

These two stories, to me, represent the first clearly visible chink in Facebook’s armour. I can now see the unique feature that the next big social network will have – an overt respect for it’s users’ privacy, a desire not to be evil. Or maybe it’s more basic than that. Maybe the business that overtakes Facebook won’t just have a desire to be good, but they’ll have a business model that doesn’t force them to be evil. I can’t help but believe that had Mark Zuckerberg thought of a better business model than “just throw some ads on the site,” he never would have felt compelled to claim that a disregard for privacy is the new “social norm.”

This may not be the stuff that Hollywood scripts are made of, but for me the next 2-3 years will as good as any epic Good vs. Evil battle. Not only will it reignite my romantic beliefs in the power of good, but it will prove that building a business model around “doing good” will be the most successful strategy for the 21st century.

The Google way vs. The Facebook way, let the battle commence!